MTC Freelance Writer
Sustainability is a broad policy concept in the global public discourse and is often conceived of in terms of three "dimensions" or "pillars": environmental, economic and social. The original semantic meaning of “sustainability” and “to sustain” refers to the ability to continue over a long period of time. In the broadest possible sense, sustainability refers to the ability of something to maintain or "sustain" itself over time. In business and policy contexts, limits to sustainability are determined by physical and natural resources, environmental degradation, and social resources.
Sustainability requires humans to learn to live within our means. Major factors, such as human population size, biosphere robustness, resource stock, food supply, and environmental quality must remain in balance, on a global scale. This state of balance must last long enough so that it will not be merely a blip on the curve of unsustainable growth. Even though we may not attain that balance, we must move in that direction if humanity and the ecosystem are to survive.
Because the Earth is a closed system, a sustainable world is only compatible with "sustainable growth". A closed system might conceivably accommodate "sustainable development," a term popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development, but how that could be done is not obvious. Another way to look at the issue is to consider the idea of a transition towards sustainability, which, however, needs a complementary discussion of the destination, or end-state, of that transition.
Most of us probably accept the proposition that everyone should have access to fair shares of food, water, shelter, and health care. Surely, we want to sustain a healthy environment and a robust ecosystem. Certainly, we want to promote equity among societies, to reduce disparity between the rich and the poor, to protect human dignity, and to eradicate violence. While moving towards that goal, we need to protect the capability of future societies to make real choices for themselves, whatever their social organisation or cultural and religious affinity. If these goals seem incompatible with our present rate of material consumption, then we need to do some careful soul-searching about our obsession for ever-increasing economic output.
To take sustainability seriously requires us to re-examine our ideas about growth, social equity, consumption, and standard of living, that putative indicator of social well-being. Sustainability is constrained at both ends of the economic output. At the starting point it is constrained by the availability of resources, and at the end point by the accumulation of waste and pollution resulting from their consumption. Consumption and systems of material distribution, the processes that link those two ends, go to the heart of the matter. The scale of global consumption, both public and private, depends on population size and on the intensity of resource use.
What are some of the implications of sustainable consumption of resources? For those living at a subsistence level, to consume is to survive. This is true today for about a third of the world's human population. For them, amenities beyond survival are largely a luxury. Such "luxury", while arguably marking civilised societies, too easily degenerates into extravagance. One possible approach to "sustainable consumption" is to support and strengthen the "ecological middle consumers". Globally, the increasing number of people living in abject poverty, combined with the number among the better-off who lapse into ostentatious consumption, threaten to endanger the future existence of the middle consumers. Equity and social justice are therefore key to a durable and sustainable world.
To discuss sustainable consumption, we need to know why people consume beyond their needs. Several essays in Crocker and Linden discuss the motivations behind consumption; why are commercial ads such a powerful driving force? Is it the attempted fulfilment of daydreams, the emulation of neighbours, or a display of enhanced wealth? If display is the motivating force, then it might help to substitute the assurance of material capability for the actual implementation. For instance, I don't have to stay aloft all the time in order to prove that I can afford all the plane trips I want to take. Such a shift in measuring the standard of living, which Sen calls a "positive freedom," might help to bring sustainability closer to reality.
In the end, whether we can attain equitable sustainability depends on the aggregate effects of individual choices and systemic changes. Institutions can provide incentives and even role models, but every one of us must make their own decisions. Certain choices may require us to give up things, or even some of our dreams, for the good of "others'' which include those without voices and the future generation. A suggestive metaphor is the choice that would face you in an overcrowded lifeboat. If taking on one more passenger would swamp the boat, do those already on board have a right to fend off newcomers? Awful though such choices appear, we in fact face them daily. How we live and how we act affect our survival, environmental quality, and local and national attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. The scale and complexity of societies may help to buffer our individual impact, yet among all the living species, humans are the only ones capable of being guardians for global sustainability buttressed by justice. We must act because we alone can choose to make a difference.
Our environment is all we have. If we don’t take care of it, who will?
“Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By Gro Harlem Brundtland